Sailing into the gap opened up by Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, The Green Knight is the latest addition to the crowded medieval/supernatural genre and writer/director David Lowery’s latest experiment in giving a hot genre a cool treatment.
It’s Dev Patel as Gawain (emphasis on the first syllable, not the second), the would-be knight who steps forward after pagan spirit creature the Green Knight gatecrashes Christmas festivities and demands that one of the assembled satisfy his challenge – take a free pop at me, but I require that in one year from today I do back to you whatever you are about to do to me. Gawain gives this film its propulsive shove by then beheading the Knight, who, it seemed, had been all but asking for it. Gawain has walked into a trap.
Being a bit of a medieval playa who likes his ale and his wench, Gawain isn’t entirely across the chivalric code. But when the Green Knight gets up off the floor, picks up his head and departs, the “one year from today” ringing ominously around the room, Gawain realises he has a promise to honour. And that’s the film – Gawain’s journey towards a rematch with a creature who seems to be half giant, half thicket – plus Gawain’s journey towards honour and integrity.
The medieval sword and sorcery genre is a great opportunity for a director to lay on a special effects extravaganza, a thud and blunder spectacle, massed armies, wizards at dawn, the full “they shall not pass” heroics. But typically Lowery is more interested in disturbing genre certainties than playing the game. His Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a fugitive drama of unusual intimacy. The Old Man & the Gun is about a bank robber so courteous the cop on his tail doesn’t have the heart to turn him in. And in A Ghost Story he turned in a haunted house drama of supernatural mellowness.
Lowery’s interest is as much in the place as the people in all those films, with A Ghost Story perhaps the purest of the lot, the trad ghost clad in a blank sheet a deflection towards the idea of the genius loci, the spirit of place. The same fascination with place infuses The Green Knight, which takes the 14th-century story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and repurposes it as a series of fabulous tableaux in front of which pared-back characters perform.
Pared back to the point where they are almost anonymous. The king (Sean Harris), never named, is King Arthur, his queen (Kate Dickie) must be Guinevere, that wizardy guy (Emmett O’Brien) glimpsed only for a half second, is most likely Merlin, and those faceless, sword-rattling carousers at the Christmas Day celebration are the Knights of the Round Table, in all likelihood. Gawain, the would-be knight, and Essel (Alicia Vikander), his low-born woman, are both named early on, but Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury), a sorceress who must surely be Morgan Le Fay, never is. Later on we meet a nobleman (Joel Edgerton) and his lusty wife (Vikander, again) who are simply Lord and Lady.
Famous names, good actors, it barely matters, it could almost be shadow theatre. Lowery announces what he’s up to early on in a lockshot of a farmyard where a horse waits patiently for a rider while a goat tries to nibble some grass which some belligerent geese reckon they have claim to. The camera just sits there, taking it all in, then takes it in some more, and then a bit more. And then we realise the building off in the extreme top right of the picture is on fire.
As if this were a half-update on Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Lowery is intensely interested in situating us in the medieval era – sheep crowd the track away from the castle as Gawain sets off on his quest, crows caw, a skeleton hangs in a gibbet, in a forest clearing fires smoulder where, we presume, charcoal is being manufactured. At one point on his reluctant journey to meet the Knight, Gawain is waylaid by thieves, tied up and robbed. Instead of focusing on Gawain’s immediate problem, the camera does a leisurely 360, taking in his surroundings, which include the skeletal remains of another man.
It’s a beautiful film, relying on old school matte paintings and physical effects rather than CGI for a lot of its magic, lensed with an eye for aesthetics and drama by Andrew Droz Palermo, with a remarkable score by Daniel Hart that shifts from cod medieval to the sort of atonal rhythm-based music that alienated a generation of 20th-century concertgoers, and as we get nearer to the encounter with the Knight, realism yields gradually to something more otherworldly and things get more impressionistic, less anchored in the rational.
Fans of character- or plot-driven stories, forget it. That’s not what’s going on here. What is going on is Lowery doing what he’s good at. Which should be enough for anyone.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021